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South Africa is drowning in illicit cigarette smuggling which has seen the neighbouring country losing at least R50 million (US$2.6 million) daily in potential revenue from well-coordinated syndicates involving high-profile politicians and business tycoons on both sides of the Limpopo River, a Zimbabwe Investigative Journalism Network (ZIJN) investigation has shown.
So rife is the cigarette smuggling between Zimbabwe and South Africa mainly through the Beitbridge Border Post, sub-Saharan Africa’s busiest inland port of entry, that the authorities across the Limpopo told ZIJN the issue has now become a national security threat as dealers sponsor organised transnational cartels and criminal gangs involved in illegal activities that breach border and immigration controls at will.
This poses border and national security threats for South Africa, officials say.
The heightened flow of illegal immigrants into South Africa from Zimbabwe is not the only problem between the two countries. There is also the issue of tobacco smuggling which is rampant.
Illicit tobacco trade in region is characterised by two key factors: South Africa provides the largest, most profitable, and thus important consumer market and cigarette production hub, while Zimbabwe is the biggest tobacco producer in the region and indeed the continent.
The trade is widespread and smuggling syndicates and networks criss-cross the region. Besides Zimbabwe and South Africa, illicit cigarettes are also sold in and trafficked through neighbouring countries Botswana, Namibia, and Mozambique.
However, the most significant smuggling routes into South Africa from Zimbabwe go through Beitbridge across the crocodile-infested Limpopo River.
Interviews with the Zimbabwe Republic Police and South African Police Service confirm ZIJN’s independent findings that despite attempts to deal with the long-standing issue, the scourge remains rife mainly through illegal crossing points.
*How Cigarettes Are Smuggled Into SA* Investigations, which include interviews with truck and bus operators in Harare, as well as observations and engagements with some involved smugglers in Beitbridge, show that ordinary people, better-known as runners, are used to transport cigarettes using plastic bags they carry on their back.
Documentary evidence, that includes pictures and videos from different sources and made available since last month from multiple sources, also shows dozens of people carrying huge boxes of cigarettes being assisted by South Africa security officials to cross the fence using illegal points, an indication of connivance from border patrols.
The smuggling phenomenon is well-documented.
Insiders say small-scale smugglers work with state security agents from both South Africa and Zimbabwe, whom they pay money ranging from R500 to R1 500 for passage.
Smuggling cigarettes using buses is also rife at the border where it emerged local buses charge different fares ranging from US$450 to US$1 500, depending on the consignment.
Statistics availed by the South African Revenue Services (Sars) show that at least 500 people who cross the border daily are smuggling no less than two master cases of illicit cigarettes on their backs.
The cigarettes, it emerged, are then loaded into trucks across the border and small vehicles which use alternative routes alongside the border into some local farms where they are kept as they plan for a next move.
One of the sources at the border post confirmed how illicit cigarette smuggling is made through several villages in Beitbridge and South Africa’s Limpopo province.
Villagers from Malale, Madimbo, Gumbu, Bennde-Mutale and Masisi in South Africa say they witness the transportation of cigarettes daily across the Limpopo River.
Smuggling is rife as traders seek to avoid value-added tax and other taxes, multiple sources that include Zimbabwe Revenue Authority (Zimra), police from Zimbabwe and South Africa and other officials said.
Limpopo provincial police spokesperson Colonel Malesela Jonathan Ledwaba confirmed arrests of cigarette smugglers were being made daily and that only last Saturday, a 48-year-old man was nabbed and is expected to appear in court this week.
The suspect, Ledwaba said, was flagged by the police and searched, leading to the discovery of smuggled cigarettes.
This, sources said, was only a tip of the iceberg and, in some instances, law enforcement agents are involved.
Every now and then smugglers are arrested between Zimbabwe and South Africa.
South Africa Police Service (Saps) national spokesperson Brigadier Athlenda Mathe could not immediately respond to enquiries despite earlier promises to do so.
However, Zimbabwe Republic Police national spokesperson Assistant Commissioner Paul Nyathi confirmed illicit cigarette smuggling was giving the law enforcement agency a headache.
He said police were working with their South African counterparts to curb the scourge.
“The ZRP has an ongoing operation targeted at fighting smuggling of cigarettes and other items,” Nyathi said.
“With regards to cigarettes, we are working together with Saps in terms of fighting and curbing smuggling through the Beitbridge Border post. We have made arrests and recovered some cigarettes,” Nyathi said.
He said the police have engaged tobacco companies and manufacturers to ensure they play a part to curb smuggling in or out of the country.
*Connivance Of Police, Other Authorities*
Six Saps officers were in July arrested for corruption at the border post and appeared in court for the smuggling of illicit cigarettes.
This was confirmed by Limpopo police and also their Zimbabwean counterparts, who added that farms in Limpopo province, close to the Beitbridge post, are being used as temporary warehouses for the illicit cigarettes as shown by the number of arrests.
In June, the Hawks arrested five suspects after discovering illicit cigarettes with an estimated value of more than R30 million on a farm.
An insider said to get to their destinations, their trucks use small and private roads to avoid tollgates, roadblocks, and ad-hoc searches by law enforcement on main roads.
It also emerged through interviews with bus and truck drivers that some of their colleagues mislead authorities by falsify their cargo.
Some of the drivers misrepresent to the authorities that they will be transporting fuel or cotton when in actual fact they will be smuggling cigarettes.
The use of fuel or gas tanks to smuggle cigarettes is common.
One of the gas tanks used to transport fuel was seen at Toitskraal farm in Limpopo by the authorities.
“For instance, he can be driving a truck full of sugar, but cases of cigarettes will be hidden in his truck,” an insider said.
“At times, this is done with the knowledge of patrol officers who are given bribes. In other instances, they do it alone. In most cases when a smuggler is caught it is either he would have failed to pay a bribe or it was through a tip off.
“On the South African side there are scanners that detect when there are cigarettes being transported. However, there is a way to go around them. You just have to pay the officers and you pass.”
For those who continue to use the official border crossing at Beitbridge, buses with hidden compartments are used to smuggle cigarettes, as they are not scanned but only subject to sporadic road checks. *BT*